Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law
When it comes to adapting classic literature, most films err on the side of caution, delivering straight forward pieces that stick as close to the source material as possible. What makes this new version of Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright and adapted by Tom Stoppard, so refreshing is that it finds a way to stay relatively faithful to the source material, while breathing fresh life into it through bold stylistic choices. Whether it ends up being regarded as one of the highlights of the 2012 movie year remains to be seen (and given the mostly mixed reviews, it seems unlikely), but it is certainly one of the most interesting.
Set in Imperial Russia, Anna Karenina tells two parallel stories, one tracing the fall of aristocratic wife Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), the other charting the rise of Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a landowner with Marxist sympathies. Anna is married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), with whom she has a young son, and is summoned to Moscow by her brother, Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen), to help him save his marriage after his wife, Dolly (Kelly Macdonald), discovers that he's been having an affair with their children's governess. Levin arrives in Moscow at about the same time to propose to Dolly's sister, Kitty (Alicia Vikander), only to learn that in his absence Kitty has fallen in love with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a cavalry officer. Levin returns to his farm with a broken heart, while Anna and Vronsky quickly fall in love, breaking Kitty's heart in the process.
Anna's affair with Vronsky creates a scandal and her lack of discretion eventually prompts her husband to threaten her with divorce and expulsion from polite society. On the verge of death after giving birth to Vronsky's child, Anna begs her husband's forgiveness, which he ultimately grants. However, once she recovers, Anna begins to feel suffocated by her husband's forgiveness and her separation from Vronsky. She runs away with him, believing herself prepared for the life of social isolation that such an act entails, but her psyche quickly begins to crack under the strain. Separated from her son, believing that Vronsky will eventually leave her in order to make a respectable and advantageous marriage, and deeply uncertain of what her future may hold, Anna comes undone. Meanwhile, Levin and Kitty are reunited and married, their "pure" love and altruistic values offering a counterpoint to the manic, destructive passion of Anna and Vronsky.
Wright unfolds much of the story on a literal theater stage, moving other scenes to the areas around the stage. It's an interesting stylistic choice because it at once pushes the audience out of the story by foregrounding the artifice of the production while, at the same time, emphasizing a major aspect of the story in a way that previous adaptations could not do quite as effectively. Although Anna Karenina is ostensibly a personal story, the story of a woman torn between love and duty, it is really a communal story about how one woman by "bad" example threatens the entire fabric of society. There is no truly private life in the aristocratic society that Karenina depicts; its members live in each other's pockets and are always keenly aware of each other's movements and indiscretions. In putting them on a literal stage, Wright highlights the way that Anna's affair with Vronsky is an upper class spectator sport, inviting the amusement and horror of all who surround them.
The stage production is effective because Wright commits to it so thoroughly, but also because the actors are good enough to transcend the production, playing their roles straight, as if unaware that sets are coming down and being put up around them, that they've wandered backstage and into the rafters. Knightley, an actress sometimes guilty of acting with her chin, delivers a solid performance as the complicated heroine, and Taylor-Johnson is appropriately peacock-like as Vronsky, strutting onto the scene like God's gift and slowly showing the increasing weight on the character's shoulders as he's forced to reckon with the consequences of the choices he and Anna have made. Both, however, are overshadowed by Law, whose restrained but wounded performance makes Karenin the film's most sympathetic character. Knightley's Anna is the film's heart, but Law's Karenin is its soul and his performance is deeply felt and compelling.
Anna Karenina is likely to be a divisive film because it takes so many risks. From my perspective, those risks pay off in the form of a film that is ultimately visually interesting and narratively rewarding. Hopefully it finds an audience willing to take a chance on it.